Secrecy surrounds a lack of security

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Prime Minister Erna Solberg and both her defense and justice ministers have had to admit this week, at public hearings called by the Parliament’s disciplinary committee, to serious shortcomings in national preparedness and security. Solberg’s government is still insisting, however, on keeping a state auditor’s highly critical report on the situation secret, and that’s setting off even more criticism and frustration.

Prime Minister Erna Solberg, testifying at Tuesday’s hearing that followed criticism of the nation’s preparedness and security from the State Auditor General. Critics in Parliament are also concerned about the government’s insistence on keeping the auditor’s report secret. PHOTO: NRK screen grab

Solberg went so far as to admit that her government “wasn’t aware” of the failure to meet various deadlines for improvements in preparedness for a national emergency, “until we in fact received the State Auditor General’s report.” Its contents continue to be classified with its details withheld from public review, but the report in general stresses that neither police nor defense officials have managed to secure public buildings well enough, more than five years after an ultra-right-wing Norwegian man bombed government headquarters and unleashed terror at a Labour Party summer camp, killing 77 people and injuring scores more. Several media commentators have claimed that the deficiencies are so serious that Solberg’s goverment doesn’t think they should be made public, perhaps because it would be too embarrassing.

State Auditor General Per-Kristian Foss even created a summary of the classified report that he claimed was cleansed of the details regarding concrete security deficiencies. Foss, a former government minister himself for the Conservative Party that Solberg leads, was thus surprised that Solberg and her Defense Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide, also from the Conservatives, also refused to make the summary public, on the grounds it could still damage national security.

State Auditor General Per-Kristian Foss has said he can’t understand the government’s refusal to even make a summary of his critical report public. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no

“I have problems understanding how this report can be a threat to national security,” Foss told newspaper Dagsavisen last month. “We are criticizing the process and don’t get into any sensitive information.” Foss remained critical of his own party’s government this week, when Solberg, Søreide and Justice Minister Per-Willy Amundsen of the Progress Party were called in for questioning by the Parliament’s disciplinary committee. The committee wanted answers and accountability, but continued to be met by government secrecy that some committee members consider a threat to Norwegian democracy.

Solberg maintained that she wasn’t aware of the security deficiencies and problems in improving preparedeness until Foss’ auditor’s report was delivered. “That’s when we first saw that things were worse (than expected),” Solberg said. Committee leader Martin Kolberg of the Labour Party called that “sensational,” and indicated her government had failed to have an overview of the security situation.

Solberg went on to blame that on an erroneous report from the state police directorate received in 2015, that allegedly indicated improvements were on track. She testified that she relied on that and wasn’t informed about problems. “When the police directorate gave a green light and reported to the Parliament that they were succeeding at securing facilities, it was based on incorrect information,” Solberg testified Tuesday. Kolberg responded, though, that she was thus putting the blame on subordinates, “and that’s something you should never do.” State Police Director Odd Reidar Humlegård testified that it was all based on a “misunderstanding.”

‘Unacceptable secrecy’
It’s the “unacceptable secrecy” surrounding the report, however, that sparked the most complaints. Solberg and her ministers would only go so far as to ask State Auditor Foss for a re-written summary, but he has refused to comply, claiming that would “weaken the seriousness of the issues here.” He’s been praised both by opposition politicians and in the media for his refusal to water down his office’s report about Norwegian officials’ failure to improve preparedness. Kolberg has claimed that such a report would be “censored” and he’d thus refuse to receive it, calling the government’s ongoing demand for secrecy “a big democratic problem.”

Ministers Søreide and Amundsen claim improvements in both preparedness and national security have been made since the State Auditor General’s report was compiled. Foss stands by his auditors’ report that the situation remained “extremely serious” as late as 2015, and he doesn’t seem convinced that police and defense officials have since succeeded in being able to secure buildings and critical public infrastructure when under threat.

Some committee members including Member of Parliament Abid Raja of the Liberal Party want to hold another hearing on the matter that would be closed to the public, and at which the auditors’ classified report could be discussed freely. Kolberg, who continues to champion openness, said he hadn’t concluded whether he will call for such a hearing, but told news bureau NTB it may be necessary.

“I think it’s a bigger possibility now, because there are questions here that are completely necessary to address,” Kolberg told NTB.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund